A few months ago I reviewed the somewhat popular Oscar-nominated based-on-a-true-story film Wild, starring Reese Witherspoon as a woman whose life has become so clumsily screwed-up that she must embark upon an epic hike of self-discovery. Despite the best efforts of the film’s director, I kind of liked Wild. I bring it up now, because this week I turn my ever-critical gaze on Tracks, a movie that most critics think invites the comparison by virtue of having ostensibly the same basic plot. Observe:
The Plot: Robyn Davidson (Mia Wasikowska) has decided to finally address the little exploration bug in her blood and, more importantly, the “everyone I’ve ever known and loved has let me down and died” and the “gosh people sure do suck” bugs. Nursing a trifecta of gnawing emotional parasites, Robyn begins the arduous process of preparing for her two thousand mile solo trek across the Australian desert, taking with her only a few camels and her beloved dog. Since providing provisions for such an undertaking produces quite the bill, Robyn manages to accrue funding for her journey from National Geographic magazine, on the condition that their photographer Rick (Adam Driver), can show up every now and then and interrupt her solitude with his intrusive camera.
Davidson’s story did headline National Geographic in 1978 with some pretty amazing images and an accompanying article by the “camel lady” herself. If you happen to have access to a library with decades of National Geographic archived in periodicals, I would highly recommend checking it out. Performing such a feat is a bit like climbing Mount Everest: damn impressive, but totally pointless to anyone who doesn’t share your specific view of the world. The struggle, then, for films of this ilk, is to deliver meaning to the audience, otherwise walking two thousand miles will seem about as deep an activity as battling James Spader robots for two and a half hours. Since my review of Wild, and of several other such lazily inspirational reality-based films of the Awards Season, I’ve complained about this impulse to assume that every single person who ever lived should get immortalized in a movie. Unlike The Theory of Everything, for example, Wild at least had something to say. While I do think that Tracks had less to say than Wild, I would also maintain that it said it better.
Before I continue, I would just like to say that while Tracks and Wild have similar conceits, they do not follow the same exact trajectory, and are not fully comparable movies. Robyn Davidson’s journey is not a pandered quest for self-discovery, but a drive of passion born of a deep-seated love for the Australian landscape, for animals, and of an easily-relatable anti-social streak. Perhaps chief amongst those motivations is her craving for solitude. Tracks jumps upon every opportunity available to criticize the growing relevance of tourism and photojournalism in the mid-1970s. Its questioning of why in the world people feel the need to document every single thing they do should sound like a familiar problem, since it’s only been getting steadily worse since then until now. Robyn’s journey for isolation feels nice, except that even in the arid and cruel desert, she never fully escapes some form of civilization or another; whether manifesting in the form of parasitic journalists stalking her for an interview or simply evidence that other humans have walked her path before, humanity’s presence in the world can never really be avoided. On top of that, I can’t help but criticize the inherent problem in making a movie about someone who just wants to be alone. As a viewer, I felt like I was intruding upon her privacy for most of the film.
Still, Tracks certainly has its virtues. Strong performance from Mia Wasikowska and Adam Driver blend well with expert cinematography, deliberate but calm pacing, and a stunning series of on-location shoots in the Australian wilderness. Though beautiful in many ways, the word “inhospitable” always comes to mind when I see such parts of continental Australia. That she never once encounters a poisonous… anything, really… seems miraculous, but it could be that my conditioning has led me to believe that Australia is just way deadlier than it actually is. I mean, what do I know about Australia? Apparently odds aren’t great that you’re going to run into a crocodile or a tree-eating spider (that’s probably a real animal) or a pack of rabid dingoes or a killer platypus (they’re poisonous, you know) or a scorpion or a bigger crocodile or a shark or the Babadook. Yeah… I don’t think I’ll be going to Australia any time soon.